The Environment Is Healing Right Now. Can We Sustain That as Travel Ramps Up?

Venice during Coronavirus Lockdown
Soccrates Images / Getty Images

One silver lining has emerged from the coronavirus pandemic: the environment is healing, exhibiting pretty remarkable signs of recovery that have made news headlines and rounds on social media. Some have been hoaxes (PSA: there were no dolphins in the Venice canals), but others were true. The Venice canals are actually running clearer due to decreased boat traffic, and there’s been a significant reduction in air pollution, particularly in China and Italy. Even in India, where air quality is routinely among the worst in the world, people in the state of Punjab have reported that they can see the Himalayas for the first time in decades. Wildlife is also reaping some of these benefits, including in our backyards. If you suddenly hear birds chirping more lately, you’re not alone—but, surprisingly, the birds might be chirping more quietly than before. Without having to compete against the noise of once-bustling places, they can sing softer, which is better for their health . 

This pandemic has naturally led to a lot of uncertainty and questions about what the world will look like when life returns to normal, environmental recovery included. When travel gradually picks back up, what will that mean for the environment? And how can we sustain the benefits we’ve seen emerge over the past several weeks? 

Travel and the Environment After Coronavirus

Nobody knows for sure what will happen when global movement is possible again. Even after it’s deemed safe to leave our hometowns or board a flight, the decisions we make about our upcoming trips will undoubtedly change, whether out of concern for the environment or personal safety (or both). And this period of remaining stationary has also provided an unprecedented opportunity for policies to be put in place to protect the progress that’s already been made. 

Domestic Travel and Outdoor Getaways

People will be eager to leave their homes, but the preferred getaway likely won’t include booking a seat on a crowded airplane heading for a major city. Domestic travel was already gaining steam on the eco- front with campaigns promoting “flight shaming” and “train bragging,” and we will likely see local travel take precedence over international trips soon. Not surprisingly, social distancing will still be in play as people seek out both destinations and methods of travel that allow for minimal contact with others.

In other words, escapes to nature will probably be a popular first trip for many travelers, and likely ones that are close to home or reachable by car or train rather than plane. It’s well known that air travel is a major source of carbon dioxide emissions , so a continued reduction in flying, whether out of conscientiousness for the earth or personal safety, will prolong the benefits we’re seeing.

For an especially green getaway, consider camping—assuming you respect the space and the wildlife, follow all posted signs and warnings, and pack out what you pack in, camping is one of the most environmentally-friendly trips you can take.

Cityscapes of Amsterdam
Laszlo Szirtesi / Getty Images

Heightened Travel-Related Restrictions in Popular Destinations

Travel has become increasingly convenient over the last decade—perhaps too much so.

The rise of the budget airline made long weekends overseas more affordable and faraway destinations more accessible than ever, increasing the problem of overtourism. In response, destinations plagued with hordes of people pleaded for them to stay away. Venice started charging day trippers a fee to enter the city while Amsterdam removed its iconic “I Amsterdam” sign outside of the Rijksmuseum when it became a mere prop for tourists’ photo ops. The Philippines and Thailand took things further when they closed Boracay and Maya Bay, respectively, to rehabilitate the destinations from damage done by tourists. 

Now, countries are asking people to stay away to contain the spread of coronavirus, and places that typically receive millions of visitors annually seem abandoned. However, this eerie silence also comes with a hopeful prospect: "The pause in tourism is not only showing what happens when you remove the crowds—clean air and water, no litter, no noise pollution, the reappearance of wildlife—but will also give decisionmakers a chance to plan for how to move forward in ways that aren't destroying the very things that people are coming to see," says Melissa Breyer, editorial director of Treehugger. These measures could take the form of rising fees or taxes on accommodations, limited numbers of tourist visas issued, and caps on people allowed to visit attractions. The challenge of confronting over-tourism may have been impossible in the midst of it, but now leaders can put policies in place to prevent it from happening again.

Reduction in Business Travel

If you're a white-collar worker, you might have noticed, seemingly overnight, a shift in the way business is done. Most companies that are able to do business remotely have made the change toward doing so, and even companies that weren’t equipped for remote workflow have adjusted to it out of necessity. Those in the latter half might be learning that some tasks or roles can be performed equally as well when done remotely. 

"You have to expect that this health crisis will push companies to re-evaluate and be more intentional with their decisions pertaining to business travel moving forward," says Anthony Naglieri, the senior director of External Affairs at Cultural Vistas, a non-profit organization that organizes internships and work-based exchange programs worldwide. Although global travel is fundamental to its work, Cultural Vistas has transitioned nearly 1,500 individuals to virtual internships over the past month, and according to Naglieri, some of the transitions have been surprisingly smooth even in a couple of cases where people are working remotely across different time zones or with teammates they haven't met yet in-person.

Before the pandemic hit, business travel accounted for about one-fifth all domestic trips  . That percentage has swiftly decreased as most companies announced travel bans for their employees in early March as the severity of the spread of coronavirus worsened. Even as travel resumes post-pandemic, business travel might not see the same revival. Ravin Gandhi, CEO of GMM Nonstick Coatings (a company with offices across several continents) told Bloomberg Businessweek that he expects work-related travel to be significantly reduced going forward.

Beyond air travel, we'll also see that working from home might become a permanent change for many. A recent survey showed that 41 percent of employees will likely continue to work remotely at least part time  , which will also reduce the number of commuting cars on the road.

“Looking ahead, we expect further investment in blended learning experiences, which include both virtual and in-person components,” Naglieri explains. “We know that global business travel is a major contributor to pollution and I believe that this current challenge will not only help us to get smarter about our work, but also reduce our environmental footprint in the process."

Hawksbill turtle with divers
Georgette Douwma / Getty Images

How You Can Travel More Sustainably

Beyond the larger trends that might emerge as the pandemic subsides, there are plenty of things we can do as individuals to lessen our carbon footprint. 

Budget Your Travel

We’re not talking money here, but rather how much traveling you’ll do in a year. Consider where you’re going, how you’re getting there, and how long you’ll stay. If you’re going somewhere far away that requires a long-haul flight, think about extending your trip. You’ll see and experience more of the destination, and you’ll likely cut down on your flight log for the year—putting more vacation time or money into one longer trip means that your other trips during the year might need to be closer to home, reducing your overall footprint, especially if you avoid flying for those. 

Choose Destinations Wisely

"One of the most important things travelers can do is to seek out less-crowded places and avoid peak seasons," says Breyer. Think about why you want to travel rather than where you want to go. What are you looking to experience on your trip? Are you looking for a beach, mountains, a great culinary scene, or historical sightseeing? That intention can be your guide to settling on a destination. As you start your research, you might discover some off-the-beaten-track places that check all your boxes, and then, once you've got your destination, research to find out its peak time and avoid visiting then. "Conventional bucket-list natural attractions cannot handle the tourist traffic that cheap travel affords, so it's vital that we all start helping to broaden the footprint." You'll reduce the impact you're making on the destination, you'll avoid crowds, and you'll likely also save money on off-peak accommodations and activities.  

Do Your Homework

Taking some extra time to make conscientious decisions can also reduce your carbon footprint. When searching for lodging, look for options that follow sustainable and eco-friendly practices, but be diligent in your search—many that claim to be green or eco-friendly are simply hopping on that trend. Look for the logo of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council on a hotel’s site or visit the GSTC site to find a list of accredited certification bodies that evaluate hotels’ environmental practices. Follow the same due diligence for tour operators.

“On average, 88 percent of scuba divers touch the reef once per dive, and that is something we need to change,” says Adam Broadbent, co-founder and CEO of ZuBlu, a scuba diving travel platform in Asia that partners with organizations such as The Reef World Foundation and Manta Trust to educate guests about responsible diving and interactions with marine life. “The demand for improvement and change is present. This responsibility falls heavily on the tour operators to enforce the correct practices and provide additional training as required.” 

Also, consider how you will get around. Walking and cycling are the greenest options, but if those aren’t possible, opt for public transportation or ride-sharing where possible before booking your own rental car. 

Pack Smarter

You probably know that you should always pack a reusable water bottle to cut down on plastic waste, but think about other ways to accomplish this goal. Try bringing refillable toiletry bottles so you can skip using the single-use bottles provided at many hotels. Do you have access to laundry at or near your accommodations? Plan to do a load so that you can rewear items allowing you to pack lighter. Aircraft fuel consumption is correlated to the weight of the aircraft, so the less total weight, the better  .

Think about activities: Will you be doing any scuba diving or snorkeling? Buy reef-safe sunscreen in advance to pack. Do you like to shop when you travel? Pack a canvas bag or two in your suitcase to cut down on the paper or plastic bags from stores. Need snacks for the flight? Pack your own in a reusable container. Once you’ve eaten those, you can use the container for leftovers at restaurants on your trips.

Obey Laws and Posted Signs

This might seem obvious, but we’ve all seen that tourist who goes beyond the marked boundaries, feeds the wildlife, or otherwise doesn’t respect the destination. These signs are there for the purpose of protecting the environment and the wildlife so obeying them is the easiest way to be a greener traveler. Just like people, animals get stressed by unknown dangers, too, says Kirsten Leong, Ph.D., a social scientist at NOAA Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center, and physical interactions between people and wildlife can lead to injury and disease transmission to both parties.

"Social distancing for wildlife results in a more authentic wildlife viewing experience," says Leong. "By making sure you are not disturbing the animals, you get to see animals following their natural wild behaviors." In other words, maintaining your distance benefits more than your safety as a traveler—it can be the highlight of your whole trip as you'll get a rare live peek into an animal's natural way of life.

Article Sources
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  1. National Public Radio. "Human Life Is Literally Quieter Due To Coronavirus Lockdown." April 14, 2020

  2. The International Council on Clean Transportation. "CO2 emissions from commercial aviation, 2018." September 9, 2019

  3. U.S. Travel Association. "Domestic Travel Fact Sheet." March 2020

  4. Gartner, Inc. "Gartner HR Survey Reveals 41% of Employees Likely to Work Remotely at Least Some of the Time Post Coronavirus Pandemic." April 14, 2020

  5. World Bank Group. "Calculating the Carbon Footprint From Different Classes of Air Travel." May 2013